For the U.K.’s teenage gender equality activist, Jenny Raw, 19, college could wait. So, as her classmates moved on to universities, Raw packed her bags and headed to New York City for some real-world experience in the gender equality movement. Now back in school, Raw recently took the time to share with Aspire Editor, Gayle Jo Carter, what all this youthful activism has taught her and how – young or old – you can do it too. Excerpts below:
Q. You’ve been involved in social action since age 16, what got your started?
“I was really lucky because my school was quite interested in getting girls interested in charity work. When I got involved in social action, I found it rewarding in two ways: firstly, I myself was growing confident and I became a little bit bold going into schools and doing assemblies about issues having to do with gender equality. I hadn’t been confident doing public speaking, even in a classroom setting before this and, secondly, when I realized I could do it, I thought, ‘I’m benefiting from this myself and I am helping younger girls learn about these kind of issues.’ Suddenly, I was having access to opportunities I didn’t even know existed. I was meeting lots of like-minded women and girls who were interested in gender equality activism. This gave me the feeling that I could make some kind of difference to them.”
Q. Were you aware of gender inequality already as a teenager?
“There were some things I noticed in my own life. When I was at primary school, I was particularly introverted. I didn’t really want to speak at all. It was only when I went to a girls secondary school that I realized that in primary school the boys were speaking over me. They were labelling me the clever one or a nerd if I said something. I didn’t really know it had anything to do with my gender at the time. When I reflect on it, I think it did. So little things like that.
As I got older, I learned about more awful issues impacting girls and women, things that I myself was fortunate not to experience, including domestic violence and FGM [female genital mutilation]. Knowing the positive impact I was having just in my privileged world, I was inspired to start speaking out for these girls in different parts of the world facing more difficult circumstances than me. I thought, ‘Okay, now that I’ve grown in confidence a bit, I should use this voice to do something positive.”
It was only when I went to a girls secondary school that I realized that in primary school the boys were speaking over me. They were labeling me the clever one or a nerd if I said something. I didn’t really know it had anything to do with my gender at the time. When I reflect on it, I think it did.
Q. You have just started at Cambridge studying history and politics. How is the gender equality there?
“It is a different environment than an all girls school. I’m lucky to go to a college that I find inclusive and somewhere I feel I can be confident and develop my academic opinions. Having been involved in this kind of activism, I am aware of making sure there is gender equality in my academic environment. I’ve become the women’s officer for my college at the University. My role is to make sure that women and girls have somewhere to go if they have any issues. It is a good environment, but it’s always important to have those mechanisms there just in case.”
Q. You have achieved so much as a young woman, what are you most proud of and how did you do it?
“It’s big and small things. On a big, glamorous level, if you like, when I was 16, I joined this charity, an NGO that works on gender equality called the Nation Council of Women of Great Britain, and I started by doing small things like charity events. Then I started organizing school debates with another girl in school and from that, we went to the United Nations and gave a speech on some of this stuff we’d been doing about the Sustainable Development Goals. During my gap year, I spent a month in America volunteering with an NGO based at the United Nations and attended a conference called the Commission on the Status of Women.
I know I’ve been quite lucky. It’s always been women who have looked out for me and have given me a chance to have these opportunities. Now, I feel most rewarded when I’m able to go back to those places that gave me those chances and use the platform I have now to return that. Last year, I spent quite a lot of time talking to girls aged 11 to 18. I would talk to them about my journey and how I didn’t expect any of this to happen. I would try to encourage them to get used to saying ‘Yes’ to opportunities. And if the opportunities aren’t there, to make them because I found I didn’t just join a club that sent me to the UN, rather it was somebody saying ‘do you want to do this conference?’ I didn’t always know where it would go. Sometimes it was just talking with the women after the conferences and networking. Sometimes it was asking stuff I never would have the nerve to ask before. When I’ve spoken to other women, in similar experiences, they’ve said it’s been a similar thing. That it never felt that easy as it was happening. So, encouraging other girls to take those opportunities is what I find rewarding now.”
Q. What did you learn during your work at the UN that could help others?
“I loved the international feeling of it. You walk around and speak to people from all different parts of the world with really different experiences. Sometimes you’ll go to an event and there will be an amazing inspirational woman that you know – just from hearing her tell her story – you’re going to always remember her in particular, the impact that she’s had on you. But then sometimes, it would be in the elevator or in the line for lunch and you’ll start chatting with someone and they’ll start telling you about something that happened in their life and how they overcame it or what they’re doing in that country. I often just feel humbled to hear what’s happening to other women, particularly, if they’ve suffered in a way that I haven’t and the way that they have used that suffering and made it into something really great. Learning in that international environment was really powerful as a young person.”
I know I’ve been quite lucky. It’s always been women who have looked out for me and have given me a chance to have these opportunities. Now, I feel most rewarded when I’m able to go back to those places that gave me those chances and use the platform I have now to return that.
Q. What are your top tips for young women who aspire to make a difference?
“I found that when I go to conferences or when I’m at events, I often feel really inspired in that moment, really empowered, particularly when I’ve been to Aspire events. You come away with this amazing feeling like ‘Wow, nothing’s impossible now.’ Then in a few weeks time, you’ll be sitting in an exam that’s really difficult or you’re feeling less inspired and it’s easy to slip back into old habits. A tip would be that when you feel inspired, try and do something to cement that feeling in your brain. I remember Sam Collins [Aspire Founder] telling me to make a brag book, a collection of nice things that people have said or memories that are positive ideas that you felt: journal it, write it down, put it on your wall, make a mind map because it allows you something concrete to go back to.
Also, be realistic that there will be times in your life, you will feel exhausted, that you’ve taken on too much. Therefore, as much as it’s important to say yes; I’ve learned recently, it’s also quite important to say no. Don’t be afraid and don’t apologize if you can’t do something because you know it’s going to be too much for your own well-being. Whatever your profession, it’s important to have a balance, particularly if you’re helping others. Someone once told me, ‘You have to put quite a lot of trust in yourself and really kind of invest in yourself, look after your health, take a break when you need to.’ I would tell a younger person to always do that because you’re not going to help someone else if you can’t be the better version of yourself.”
Q. How do you deal with people who don’t agree with you or think you should do something else with your life?
“What’s really helped me is accepting this. I try to think of people who don’t agree with me as a positive thing because when someone agrees with you, that can be great and empowering. But also sometimes someone who challenges you can be a good thing. It can make you feel either more affirmed in your own views or make you firm up your own facts, which can make you a better advocate for that view.
There will be times when something’s upsetting to you or it’s just not that helpful. To counter this, have more positive people in your life, cheerleaders basically. I’m lucky to have a network of female friends. Female friends have a particular power for me. They are there when something has gone really well and to celebrate it with. But they are also there when something has not gone particularly well. They are there for you to admit your failings and make you feel okay about that. Try to be the same for those friends when you can, they can counter more negative situations.”
Q. What is your biggest fear becoming an activist? How do you overcome it?
“Imposter syndrome. I probably still have quite a bit of that. It’s important to remember that other people probably feel the same. Sometimes, I’ll go into a meeting as a young person and there will be people who worked in that field for a long time using acronyms or something I don’t understand, or they’ll just be speaking in a way I don’t understand. I used to feel very afraid to ask a question or even ask, ‘What does that mean?’ because I felt that somehow someone would discover I shouldn’t really be in that meeting in the first place. But the more I dared myself to ask the question, the more I learned that sometimes other people don’t really know the answer either and they’re even more ashamed than me to ask that question. At least with me, it’s ‘okay, she’s still young, she’s still learning.’ That’s been a challenge and it continues to be one.”
Sign at Women's March | Photo by Micheile Henderson
Jenny Raw | Photo Courtesy of Jenny Raw
Q . You describe yourself as a quiet leader yet at the same time, you are a public speaker. What is your advice for other quiet leaders?
“It’s learning to be authentic. Dr. Sam Collins [Aspire Founder] talked quite a lot about that at some of the Aspire conferences I’ve been to. When I was growing up, I’d look at leaders in the news and they’d often be kind of hero leaders: loud, shouting, very charismatic. I’ve found I used to be objectively too quiet. I’d have something to say and I wouldn’t say it because I was afraid to do so. Whereas now, I would say, from putting myself in situations where I do find myself uncomfortable, where I’ve made myself do it, I can do it. I still find it difficult, but I can make myself.
In social situations, I’m not always the loudest person in the room but as I’ve made really good friends and met people who are similar or who are different than me, I realized I don’t have to necessarily change. There’s a place for quiet leaders. Some of the most powerful speeches I’ve heard at conferences have been from more reserved and quiet people. So, I would say to a younger person, ‘don’t let being quiet hold you back. If it’s stopping you from doing something you really want to, then do speak up. But equally, don’t feel you have to fit a model because maybe that model is the problem.’”
Q. What are the many causes you are involved in now?
“I sit on the on the board for the #IwillFund; the #Iwill Fund is a fund which brings together funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and The National Lottery Community Fund to support the goals of the #Iwill campaign in England. The #Iwill campaign aims to get all 10 to 20 year-olds involved in action. I’m one of the three young people on the board. They wanted to make sure young people have a say in where the money goes because it’s seeking to benefit young people.
I’m also a trustee for The National Council of Women of Great Britain, which is a charity I’ve been involved with for a while. Their aim is to create a world in which it is “no disadvantage to be born a girl” by representing women’s views to the government, carrying out research and working with younger women in schools and colleges through seminars and debates.”
Q. When you are 100 years old, what do you want to be saying about your life?
“I’d like to be saying that ‘I’ve made a meaningful positive difference to people’s lives.’ I realize now that it doesn’t necessarily mean in a particularly high-powered job. You can make a difference as a prime minister or as a teacher or working in retail. I want to find something I really enjoy, feel like I’m good at. I’d like to look back and be able to see something tangible that I have been able to change in a positive way and hopefully help others to see that they could work in the private sector or in the public sector or anything they like and they can still be making a positive difference. It’s not just a certain type of people. We need every sector to be engaged if we’re going to make the kind of changes that we want to see.”
Q. What influence have you parents had on your journey?
“They felt I was always capable and they’re happy that through other inspiring women in my life I’ve been able to start using my voice in a louder way. My mom always brought me up to believe that my gender shouldn’t ever be something that got in my way in terms of what I wanted to achieve. My mom is a very kind person. I often see her doing things with no benefit to herself. Certainly, with the #Iwill campaign, I will look at ways to get young people involved in social action. Often, we found there’s a trend – if your parents are involved in volunteering, it becomes a habit, something you’ve grown up seeing. My dad’s involved in charity work as well. If you see your parents doing that, it’s just what you do.”
Q. Is there one big thing you see we need to focus on in the women’s movement?
“It’s difficult to pick one issue, there are so many awful things that happen to women and girls. Empowering other women and helping other women is very important. I often hear people saying ‘women are each other’s worst enemies.’ I think that’s a bit too far.
There are lots of other reasons why women aren’t always able to help other women. It’s not quite as simple as that. It’s not an inherent flaw with women. It’s quite important that when a woman is able to get an opportunity, she helps other women. If, for example, as a white woman, I’m able to get an opportunity which because of the society in which we unfortunately live, is easier because I’m a white women. In terms of intersectional feminism, if I can help someone who is more disadvantaged than me, who has more layers of prejudices against her than me then it’s my responsibility to help that women.”
Write to Gayle Carter email@example.com
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